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Chance of a Lifetime
Author: Jude Deveraux


PROLOGUE


   For an angel as old as Agon, there was nothing new under the sun, or above. After thousands of years studying the human condition, he’d pretty much seen it all. Time didn’t lie. It proved over and over again that human beings were flawed. They led messy lives. They didn’t always learn from their mistakes. And yet, as he swooped into the Department of Destiny and prepared for another day of judging souls, he remained ever the optimist. Because time also had a way of proving that even in the face of all odds, love would prevail.

   He landed silently in the misty chamber and slapped his associate on the back. “What’s up, Samael?”

   The shorter angel jerked, fumbling for the clipboard in his hands. He gave Agon a scathing look of disapproval. “How many times must I tell you not to sneak up on me like that?”

   “Oh, yes. Sorry,” Agon said breezily. “Who’s up next?”

   Samael checked the clipboard with a heavy sigh. Pale curls framed his round face. Next to Agon’s imposing figure and dark hair, Samael looked almost boyish. But he’d been in charge of the Department of Destiny for over three hundred years, and he ran it with a stoic sense of justice that made him seem much older. “A grave disappointment, to be sure. The soul of Liam O’Connor stands judgment today.”

   “Ah.” Agon shook his head sadly. “Poor Irish ruffian. Such a tragic love story, Liam and the fair Cora.”

   “Those two should never have fallen in love,” Samael said with a scowl. “It shattered all of our plans. For over a century! So many destinies were ruined because of it.” He tucked his wings neatly behind his back, then glanced at Agon. “Are you ready to call him in?”

   “Yes.” Agon turned toward the wall of mist and pasted an encouraging smile on his face.

   “I told you not to do that,” Samael said. “This is serious business. We must reflect the gravity of the situation through our appearance and mannerisms.”

   “But humans like smiles,” Agon said. “I thought perhaps it would make him feel more comfortable.”

   “His soul hangs in the balance between heaven and hell, and we’re about to judge it,” Samael said flatly. “Who could possibly be comfortable with that?”

   “Right.” Agon arranged his features to appear as bleak and unyielding as the surrounding chamber.

   “Much better,” Samael said with a nod. Then he raised his hand and called into the void. “I summon the soul of Liam O’Connor.”

   Like a cannonball hurled through a cloud, a man shot out of the mist, tumbling head over heels to land before the angels in a tangle of curses and grunts. Unlike other souls who were called to the Department of Destiny, Liam did not rise on unsteady feet, shaking with fear, terrified to stand judgment for his past life’s choices. Instead, he jumped up, slapping at wisps of fog still clinging to his hair and clothing, dark eyes casually scanning the room.

   Samael regarded him coolly. “Do you know why you’ve been summoned to the Chamber of Judgment?”

   Liam raised a dark brow. “Judgment day, I’d imagine?” For someone who stood on the brink of eternal damnation, he was far too nonchalant. But the angels knew this was part of his act. Liam O’Connor was no stranger to deception.

   “We have reviewed your past life and found you wanting,” Samael said. He flicked his hand, and moving images suddenly appeared in the misty wall. Liam picking pockets. Breaking into houses. Liam running through the forest carrying a bag of stolen jewels. A stagecoach in the background with victims shouting after him. A musket ball shattering the branch of a tree near his head. Liam laughing in the face of danger.

   “You were a thief,” Samael said. “And you stole from innocent people. Often.”

   “Well...” Liam crossed his arms and leaned against the wall of mist. “Crops were failing. I only stole to help put food on the table. Simple as that.”

   “Do not attempt to lie to us,” Samael said coldly. “We can see into your soul, Liam O’Connor, and we know the truth. You enjoyed stealing. You reveled in your life as a thief.”

   “Fine.” Liam pushed off the wall and began to pace, dragging the tips of his fingers through the roiling fog. “I did enjoy thieving, and I was good at it, too. I was never any good at farming. But I kept my brother’s family from starving, didn’t I? That has to count for something.”

   Samael gazed at him sternly. “You didn’t only steal objects.” He flicked his hand and another image appeared, a sweet, innocent young woman with glossy blond curls and rosy cheeks. She had a round, pretty face with a nose just a little too prominent, and a smile just a little too trusting. She was holding out a rose.

   “Cora,” Liam breathed. He stepped closer, but the image of the young woman vanished. “Bring her back!” He grasped at the fog with both hands. “Let me see her again.”

   “She wasn’t meant for you, ruffian,” Samael said. “You stole her from her fiancé.”

   “But I loved her,” Liam shot back. “And she—”

   “You interfered with her destiny,” Samael interrupted. “She was supposed to marry that man, and together they were going to raise a child who would someday help the world.”

   Liam scowled. “Her fiancé didn’t deserve her. She wanted me. It was me she loved in the end.”

   “Ah, yes,” Samael said icily. “The end.”

   Liam glanced away.

   “Things ended very badly for her, as you well know,” Samael continued. “For both of you. And now, because of you, Cora’s soul has never found peace. In every new life we’ve given her, she’s afraid to fall in love. She never lives long enough to fulfill her destiny.” He flicked his hand again.

   This time, terrible images appeared. Cora as a young nurse, caring for soldiers during an outbreak of scarlet fever...dying in a hospital bed. Cora as a nanny, rushing to save a young child from the path of a runaway horse...dying in the street. Cora working in a factory during WWII...dying in an explosion.

   The angels knew Liam wouldn’t understand some of the things he was seeing, but the message was very clear. Cora’s life always ended in tragedy.

   “Enough!” Liam flung his hands up, scrubbing his face. “Just tell me my fate. Is it to be hell, then?”

   The angels exchanged glances.

   “It is true you’ve done much wrong in your life,” Samael said. “But you’ve also done some good. For this reason, we’re going to give you a chance at redemption.”

   Liam’s head shot up. He glanced back and forth between the two angels.

   “Cora is on earth again in this twenty-first century,” Samael said. “You must make sure she fulfills her true destiny in this life.”

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